HAVING represented his club on the football fields of Clare for 22 years, Odran O’Dwyer is acclimatising to life on the sidelines.
The self-employed Mullagh man made his debut as a Kilmurry Ibrickane senior selector in the side’s one-point Cusack Cup win over Lissycasey last week.
A Kilmurry senior footballer since 1993, O’Dwyer retires from playing with seven senior championship medals in his pocket, accompanied by two Munster club and six Cusack Cup medals.
He represented Clare at every level, while he also played for Ireland in 2003, when they travelled to take on Australia in the compromise rules series.
O’Dwyer had six pins inserted in his shoulder, when he underwent shoulder reconstruction surgery recently, which will take several months to heal fully.
“Time catches up with you and the legs get slower. There’s nothing you can do. I had said to the family that 2014 was my last year,” he told The Clare Champion this week.
O’Dwyer cites 2004 as a year he will never forget. Kilmurry won their first Munster club title that season and he was captain. On top of that his father, Pat was manager, while his brothers, Peter, Michael and Robert played key roles. Ironically, Odran feels that Kilmurry had a better team in 2002.
“It was nice to captain the club to our first Munster club and we were a kick of a ball away from beating Ballina, the eventual All-Ireland champions. There is no doubt about it, we had a great team. I think what made us that year was our [county final] replay with Éire Óg. We had two cracking games with them. They should probably have beaten us the first day. Those games made us. We went on then to play Drombroadford and Stradbally. We had the luck of the draw because we avoided the big Cork and Kerry teams. But if you go back to 2002, that was probably the best team I ever played in. We played Nemo Rangers back in Quilty and they only beat us by a kick of a ball. They walked away with the All-Ireland final. Those were two excellent [Kilmurry] teams. Obviously, the 2010 team that got to the All-Ireland was good but again we had the luck of the draw along the way, especially in Clare,” he recalls.
Winning the Clare championship steeled Kilmurry for Munster.
“On a lot of occasions, getting out of Clare can be one of the hardest things. I wouldn’t rate the level of club football now as good as what it was 10 years ago but teams are still very competitive. On any given Sunday, any team, bar one or two, could beat another. Any team that gets out of Clare will always, more than likely, do well in Munster.”
For Kilmurry supporters, the trip to London to play Kilburn Gaels in the January 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final was an adventure of a lifetime. Their players, however, felt the heat long before the ball was thrown in.
“That’s one of the oldest tricks in the books. The London boys do that the whole time. They put the away team into a tiny dressing room where you couldn’t fart and the heat is stifling. You’re beside the boiler room and the windows are locked. Any time we were playing McGrath Cup they used to always do that as well. The sweat was coming off you and the next thing you went out and it was freezing. You had all of this sweat freezing into your body and you had to warm up again on a heavy, sticky field,” O’Dwyer remembers.
He goes almost equally as red recounting a conversation he had with Doonbeg’s Gerry Killeen outside the Gaelic Grounds on July 19, 1992. Clare had won the Munster championship an hour earlier but a young O’Dwyer had words of advice for Killeen. In what was O’Dwyer’s first season as a senior club footballer, Kilmurry were due to play Doonbeg shortly afterwards.
“Everyone was hanging around. I was talking to ‘Horse’ Moloney and Gerry Killeen walked by. He had missed three or four frees, plus a penalty. So I said to him, ‘you’d want to practice those frees for the next day’. He hadn’t a clue who I was but about two weeks later, we played Doonbeg in the championship and he scored 12 points from frees. I think they scored 0-13 altogether. I should have kept my mouth shut,” he says.
One of the county’s best forwards of his generation, O’Dwyer started off his career as a defender. Plenty of opposing defenders would have had an easier life if he had stayed there.
“I started off, at school and underage, playing corner-back. By minor, I was playing midfield. The first time I played in the forwards was in 1993. I ended up stuck inside there then. I definitely liked full-forward but I’d say some of the best games I played were at wing-back at U-21 level. I also played there a couple of games for Clare around 1999,” he said, noting that full-forward can be a “lonely place” if the ball is an infrequent visitor.
Playing alongside your brothers is a help if a row breaks out in a match. They are usually first in. The O’Dwyer brothers, though, were not shy in telling each other where they were going wrong if they had to.
“It can work either way. Definitely, if there’s a row with the opposition, the brothers will come in and back each other up. They’d be the first in. But in training you’d see brothers bawling each other out of it. Myself, Peter and Michael would have gone to blows on numerous occasions even after matches; ‘why didn’t you pass that ball?’ and things like that. I suppose that’s just part of the animal instinct in you trying to drive on,” he surmises.
Playing for Ireland in 2003 was a career highlight, along with his club successes. However, O’Dwyer very nearly didn’t make it to Australia. He injured his medial knee ligaments at the trials and had to take extreme measures to regain full fitness.
“I gave up work for a month and trained four times a day. I was up at 5am, going back to the beach, getting into the water. I was doing weights and getting physio a couple of times a day. I was back playing three weeks after the injury,” he said.
He made the last 40 in 1998, along with James Hanrahan and Martin Daly, but an ankle injury in a Cusack Cup game cost him the opportunity of playing for Ireland that year.
A Clare U-21 mentor in 2007 and 2008, O’Dwyer has also served in a similar role with his club. Still, it’s a step up this year, working as a senior selector.
“John Connole contacted me when he got the Kilmurry job and asked me was I interested. There’s always a hunger there to get involved. It’s hard to walk away. You’d miss the atmosphere in the dressing room. Being a selector, manager or trainer keeps you in touch and involved. There’s still that buzz. That’s what most people miss; the buzz, the smell of sweat and the testosterone inside in the dressing room. You can never make up for not playing but you’d miss the craic if you weren’t involved.”
Away from the club scene, O’Dwyer saw Clare play Armagh in the NFL last Sunday week. From the outset this year, he felt Clare’s priority was to stay in Division 3.
“The most important thing is to try and consolidate their position. It would be great to see them going up to Division 2 but if they did, they would be in for a hiding the following year, being realistic about it. You’re straight back down and that could continue back down to Division 4. It might be a case of having to consolidate again next year. It was a step up against Armagh the last day. Realistically, they’re definitely a Division 2 team and maybe Division 1. You could see the difference in the first half. Armagh kicked some lovely diagonal passes and they played at pace, whereas Clare were cumbersome coming out of the backs. They were holding onto the ball a little bit too much. I know they’re playing a possession game but it’s very hard to score against better teams because they’re going to funnel back and shut down the space,” he observes.
“If you are going to play at that level, you have to try and play at a faster pace. In fairness in the second half, they came out and they did move it quicker. The second half was definitely a big improvement. It’s a learning curve for Clare and at least they’re out of Division 4. You’re never going to learn anything down there. You’re down in a rut,” O’Dwyer maintains.
Back at the club, he has noticed that even Kilmurry’s playing options are reducing. This he attributes to population decline.
“Under Micheál McDermott one year, we only had one player [Martin McMahon] in the county team. We had a big panel of 30 players, whereas this year we’re nearly struggling to get numbers out. It’s a challenge for every team, not just Kilmurry. The likes of Doonbeg have gone through a transition over the last few years. Kilkee are going through a massive transition. A lot of it is down to the population of the areas. The rural clubs just haven’t got the numbers and teams are getting older. The older fellas are hanging on, trying to help out and are probably hanging on a year or two too long. You’re doing it because you’re hoping you’ll win another match or championship and help to bring along the younger fellas coming through. Unfortunately, there is not the same pool of players that there was five or 10 years ago,” the retired footballer but fledgling Kilmurry mentor concludes.
By Peter O’Connell